Category Archives: Argentina

Okinawans Before the Battle, 1945

From Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb, by George Feifer (Ticknor & Fields, 1992), pp. 63-64, 74-75:

Okinawa’s problems included an internal caste system and vigorous snobbery. As most Japanese looked down at most Okinawans, rich Okinawans, especially from the cities, tended to look down at farming villagers, who did the same to inhabitants of the smaller Ryukyu islands. More painfully, there was overcrowding. The island’s southern third, where by far the hardest fighting would take place, was over four times more densely populated than Rhode Island. This would contribute to the coming battle’s extraordinary toll in civilian deaths, as it had contributed to centuries of poverty. “When you come to Okinawa,” a folk song advised, “please wear straw shoes” – for the coral was as hard on bare feet as it was to cultivation. The majority of the population eked out their existence on thin, harsh soil. Nature took away almost as much as it gave. The chronicle of natural disasters, especially crop-ruining, house-flattening typhoons, reads like the drum rolls of a dirge to a little people also regularly decimated by drought, plague and famine. “The whole fragile, minuscule structure survived throughout the centuries at bare subsistence level,” a Western historian summarized. No threat to anyone, the patch of meager land would never be a prize, except for its strategic position in other nations’ plans.

Poverty remained widespread in 1944. It was rooted in subtropical lassitude, agricultural backwardness and the typhoons that regularly ravaged housing and crops. The 1940 population, about 475,000 before the battle in 1945, owned 250 motor vehicles, one to every two thousand persons. A quarter were busses. In “poor” Japan, which felt compelled to seize other people’s land, the average farmer farmed five tan, about one and a quarter acres. It was two tan on Okinawa, and per capita income was about half the mainland average.

Farmers usually went without shoes. They planted their tiny fields chiefly with sugar cane, most of the crop now going to the mainland’s war-economy alcohol, and with sweet potatoes. The blessed sweet potato, which had arrived on a seventeenth-century ship returning from delivering tribute to the Chinese court, remained the mainstay of the “poor man’s” diet. A naval research unit that would analyze soil samples after the American landing first discovered that “Okinawa’s earth was made of sweet potatoes – everywhere we dug.” Next, it found the fields were “generously fertilized with nightsoil – a rich source … of typhoid and paratyphoid bacilli, which a month later [in May 1945, when the fighting was most severe] produced a mild outbreak among our troops.”

Despite great hunger for farmland, much of the island remained untilled. The mountain soil was too thin, large tracts wre covered with sand and thousands of coral escarpments had no covering at all – thus an even more intense cultivation of the arable land. Although private ownership had replaced an ancient system of common ownership, a long history of village responsibility for the common welfare bound the little hamlets, also tightly linked by family ties, in a deep sense of cooperation and community obligation.

Bean soup, a few garden vegetables and very occasional pork and fish provided relief from the sweet potatoes. Rice was a luxury for many farmers. They considered rain good weather, since water was scarce despite heavy annual rainfall, most of which ran off the coral. But there was much laughter and song. There was an easygoing attitude toward one’s time on earth, far easier than in intense, driven mainland Japan.

Perhaps the most salient contrast with the Japanese was in the attitude toward life and death. Okinawans revered their ancestors but not as warriors. The most noticeable man-made feature of the landscape was the great number of tombs. The earliest had been in caves that honeycombed the island. Later, when aboveground structures were constructed, most families spent as much money and effort as possible on the dwelling place for all eternal spirits. One of the two most prominent designs was shaped like a little house, often built into a hill unsuited for cultivation. The other, probably imported later from China, looked like a turtle’s back, the turtle being a symbol of long life – or, as many had it, a vagina opening into a womb, the idea being that all return to their source after their earthly passage. The Okinawan versions had a oddly gentle beauty. A visiting artist was surprised by the “extraordinary fine shape” of even the poor farmers’ efforts.

The family tomb was the site for picnics and holidays. Three years after death, the bones of the decomposed body were washed, then placed in a beautifully colorful ceramic urn inside the tomb for thirty-three years, when a memorial service was held and the now floating spirits were venerated – but with no glorification of death, let alone hunger to serve or sacrifice for a nationalist cause….

Stunning Japanese victories from 1931 to 1941 did convince many Okinawans that Japan, not Okinawa, was indeed divine and destined to rule the world. Until then, then had long been skeptical of nationalist ambitions and military methods, and had felt much good will toward the United States in particular. Many of the sixty thousand Ryukyuans who emigrated by 1930 were in Argentina, the Japanese mainland and Brazil … But many went to Hawaii and California. The savings sent back from their chiefly laboring wages there represented riches to their families.

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Filed under Argentina, Brazil, food, Japan, migration, military, nationalism, Pacific, religion, U.S., war

Che’s African Farce, 1965

From Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, by Alma Guillermoprieto (Vintage, 2001), pp. 81-82:

Che was unable to deal with his disapproval of the course that Fidel was taking and his simultaneous love for the man; with his disillusionment with the Soviet Union and the self-satisfaction of the burgeoning Cuban bureaucracy; with the palace intrigues of the new regime (particularly those of Fidel’s brother Raúl); and, probably, with the gnawing awareness of his own failings as a peacetime revolutionary. It seems reasonable to interpret his decision to leave Cuba as Castañeda does—as the result of his need to get away from so much internal conflict. (In the course of explaining this decision, Castañeda provides an extraordinary account of the ins and outs of Cuban state policy, Cuban-Soviet relations, and Castro’s dealings with the United States.) Che was leaving behind a second wife, six children, his comrades, his years of happiness, and the revolution he had helped give birth to; none of these were enough to convince him that he belonged.

Guevara’s original intention was to return to his homeland and start a guerrilla movement there. A 1965 expedition to the Congo, where various armed factions were still wrestling for power long after the overthrow and murder of Patrice Lumumba, and his last stand in Bolivia, Castañeda writes, followed improbably from Fidel’s anxious efforts to keep Che away from Argentina, where he was sure to be detected and murdered by Latin America’s most efficient security forces. Castro seems to have felt that the Congo would be a safer place, and the question of whether it was a more intelligent choice doesn’t seem to have been addressed either by him or by the man he was trying to protect. (In Cairo, Jon Lee Anderson notes, Gamal Abdel Nasser warned Che not to get militarily involved in Africa, because there he would be “like Tarzan, a white man among blacks, leading and protecting them.”)

As things turned out, the Congo episode was a farce, so absurd that Cuban authorities kept secret Che’s rueful draft for a book on it—until recently, that is, when one of his new biographers, Taibo, was able to study the original manuscript. Guevara was abandoned from the beginning by Congolese military leaders, such as Laurent Kabila, who had initially welcomed his offer of help. He was plagued by dysentery and was subject to fits of uncontrollable anger, and emerged from seven months in the jungle forty pounds lighter, sick, and severely depressed. If he had ever considered a decision to cut bait and return to Cuba, that option was canceled weeks before the Congo expedition’s rout: on October 5, 1965, Fidel Castro, pressed on all sides to explain Che’s disappearance from Cuba and unable to recognize that the African adventure was about to collapse, decided to make public Che’s farewell letter to him: “I will say once again that the only way that Cuba can be held responsible for my actions is in its example. If my time should come under other skies, my last thought will be for this people, and especially for you.”

Guevara was sitting in a miserable campsite on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, bored, frustrated, and in mourning for his mother, when he was told that Fidel had publicized the letter. The news hit him like an explosion. “Shit-eaters!” he said, pacing back and forth in the mud. “They are imbeciles, idiots.”

Guevara’s final trek began at this moment, because once his farewell to Fidel was made public, as Castañeda writes, “his bridges were effectively burned. Given his temperament, there was now no way he could return to Cuba, even temporarily. The idea of a public deception was unacceptable to him: once he had said he was leaving, he could not go back.” He could not bear to lose face.

A few months later, having taken full and bitter stock of his situation, he made the decision to set up a guerrilla base—intended as a training camp, really—in southern Bolivia, near the border with Argentina. From there, he convinced himself, he would ultimately be able to spark the revolutionary flame in Argentina and, from there, throughout the world.

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Filed under Argentina, biography, Congo, Cuba, military, war

The Making of Evita Duarte

From Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, by Alma Guillermoprieto (Vintage, 2001), pp. 6-8:

The facts of Evita’s early life coincide nicely with those of the poor she came to represent: she was, like so many others, born of a destitute woman who found it expedient, and possibly gratifying, to take a wealthy and powerful lover. (Juan Duarte was a landowner and small-town caudillo, or political boss, in a rural area about ninety miles west of Buenos Aires, and he was properly married. Juana Ibarguren was a woman he spent many nights with and was the mother of five of Duarte’s children, of whom Eva Maria, born in 1919, was the youngest.) Like so many children born of these arrangements in a country where upper-class snobbery reaches extremes of refinement and viciousness, Eva was humiliated by her bastard status. (Juana Ibarguren and her children, who lived in a one-room house, were kept away from Juan Duarte’s elegant funeral, but were allowed to say a quick farewell to the corpse at the wake.) Eva migrated on her own from the sticks to Buenos Aires at age fifteen, and, like so many of the expanding capital’s other new residents, she looked for opportunity and found it lacking. She shared with her class a gnawing, all-encompassing resentment that was the precise counterpart of the seething contempt the ruling class cultivated for the plebes. Most important, neither she nor her fellow poor were inclined to be fatalistic. The Argentina that Eva Duarte grew up in was a nation of recent immigrants—Italian anarchist farmers, Spanish socialist shopkeepers, conservative German merchants—who had brought their politics with them when they migrated, and who firmly believed that they deserved the better life they were willing to work so hard for.

Perón—himself born out of wedlock, and pursuing upward mobility through an army career—was their catalyst. He was a cynical politician who systematically played off his followers against one another, often with tragic results, and his authoritarian approach to government probably grew out of his intense admiration for Franco and Mussolini. It may well be the case that he (and Eva) provided shelter for Nazis fleeing Europe after the Axis collapse, in exchange for a significant part of the Third Reich’s treasure—Dujovne works hard to try to prove it in her biography—but generations of Argentines have remained impervious to these accusations, because of what Perón gave them: a political movement that legitimated and ennobled the working poor, and a decisive restructuring of the state which—by nationalizing key resources, establishing generous social-welfare programs, and institutionalizing a crony relationship between organized labor and the government—transformed Argentina from a sugar daddy for the rich into a sugar daddy for the poor. Perón was only one of several upstart colonels when Evita thanked him for existing, and his speeches did not then, or ever, reveal the kind of substantial political thinking that gets translated into lasting programs or gets used to interpret reality in other parts of the world, but he cannot simply be written off as a demagogue. He had a vision of a free Argentina: a nation that under his verticalista guidance would steer clear of both sides in the Cold War, and in which law and order would prevail, government would be responsive to the needs of its citizens, and workers would get the respect their efforts deserved. In that sense, he was revolutionary, and Eva Duarte, like millions of others, responded instantly to his appeal. As for his aloof, diffident personality (he liked to describe himself as “a herbivorous lion”), it, too, was a virtue, for it turned him into an empty vessel that Evita could fill with her faith.

Eva Duarte’s role in history was determined within months of her first encounter with the colonel. One day she was a source of hilarity for upper-class women, who made a point of tuning in to her “Famous Women” broadcasts. (“What a daily pleasure, this nasal voice who played [Catherine of Russia] with rural tango accents!” one said.) The next, she had secured her movie role in Circus Cavalcade, because she was already the established mistress of Juan Perón, a man not known for passion, who had nevertheless rented an apartment in Eva’s building so that he could be near her without violating the moral code. His new lover was not easy or pleasant to live with—she threw tantrums, demanded in public that he marry her, and soon displayed her contempt for all but his most slavishly devoted political associates—yet despite these defects she was the perfect woman for him, because she pushed him beyond his own apathy.

This book was one of my last two purchases from my local Border’s before it went out of business. My favorite history shelves were still much fuller than many of the other shelves in the sad-looking store.

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